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Regarding the implications of the political developments of the last five years for the study of American political development (APD), this article argues that the unprecedented Trump phenomenon and its problematic repercussions for U.S. democracy have greatly enhanced the value of a comparative perspective, which can draw instructive lessons from the fate of attacks on liberal democracy by populist leaders in other countries. Comparativists examining the contemporary United States initially highlighted the risks of populist leadership (i.e., political agency), stressed the possibilities of democratic backsliding, and examined how popularly elected chief executives can undermine democracy from the inside—all of which fueled grave concerns. Yet for a more realistic assessment of populism's actual danger for U.S. democracy, one must analyze the probability of such a deleterious outcome. Therefore, researchers need to embed agency in contextual conditions and investigate what institutional, structural, cultural, and conjunctural factors empowered populist leaders to destroy democracy in some countries, whereas other constellations of these factors have impeded democratic backsliding in many other nations. With this move beyond a primary focus on agency, comparative analyses align with APD's longstanding attention to complex context factors. Interestingly, such a comparative perspective corroborates the distinctive institutional strengths and relative resilience of U.S. democracy.
Matias López and Juan Luna (2021) challenged my comparative analysis of populism’s threat to democracy, its reliance on institutional factors (coupled with conjunctural opportunities), and especially the inference about US democracy’s immunity to populist suffocation. However, their emphasis on structuralist and culturalist factors, which would suggest the vulnerability of the United States, is strikingly selective, theoretically unconvincing, and empirically problematic. López and Luna’s methodological improvement of my analysis does not alter the substantive findings or overturn my sanguine inference about US democracy’s likely resilience. Only their further modifications yield more pessimistic scenarios, but those adjustments stand on shaky theoretical and empirical ground. Indeed, the experiences of 2020–2021 corroborate my theory and its comparative lessons. The US institutional framework held firm and foiled the insistent attempts of President Trump and his most fervent followers to perpetuate the US populist in power. Consequently, US democracy continues to appear quite safe from populist strangulation.
Among social scientists, constructivism has long reigned supreme in the study of ethnicity, nationality, and nationalism. Accordingly, scholars have highlighted the role of cultural framing and political choice in the definition of ethnic categories, their fluidity, and their flexible boundaries. Conversely, they have deemphasized the historical roots of ethnicity and depicted nations as the contested products of nationalist movements and political leaders and as (merely) “imagined communities” (Anderson 1991). Although constructivism encompasses a broad gamut of theories that differ in the malleability ascribed to ethnicity (Chandra 2012, 19–22, 139–49), recent authors have emphasized its susceptibility to change by highlighting manipulation by political-electoral entrepreneurs (Wilkinson 2012) and focusing on “identity in formation” (Laitin 1998), “ethnicity without groups” (Brubaker 2004), and “imagined noncommunities” characterized by “national indifference” (Zahra 2010).
Chapter 2 systematically presents the book’s theoretical approach. After acknowledging the contribution of various causal factors to democratic breakdown during the interwar years, it highlights the fundamental role of the double deterrent effect. Because established elites saw both revolutionary Communism and its most potent antidote, counterrevolutionary fascism, as serious dangers, they used their preponderant power capabilities to impose conservative authoritarianism as a safeguard in many countries. These threat perceptions and dictatorial reactions were driven by basic mechanisms of cognitive psychology. With their deviation from standard rationality, heuristic shortcuts and asymmetrical loss aversion gave rise to striking misperceptions and overreactions, which help account for the proliferation of autocracy and the horrendous, “unnecessary” bloodletting of the 1920s and 1930s.
Because democracy was not uniformly overthrown during the 1920s and 1930s, Chapter 9 investigates the edges of the autocratic wave. The analysis focuses on Finland, France, and Czechoslovakia, which faced important attacks from the fascist right, yet succeeded in maintaining liberal democracy. Democratic forces in these nations drew on different sources of strength to avoid both an extreme-right power seizure and the imposition of conservative authoritarianism by establishment sectors. Moreover, the chapter also explores the unusual case of Argentina, where a fascist project emerged in the mid-1940s, yet the global de-legitimation of fascism in 1945 prompted its transformation into authoritarian populism, which subsequently turned into a model in Latin America.
Does the recent wave of right-wing populism foreshadow a revival of fascism? To elucidate this question, this book examines the politics of fascism, authoritarianism, and Communism during the interwar years. In this way, the study sheds light on the reversal of liberal progress during this era, which brought the frequent downfall of democracy and the proliferation of authoritarianism and fascism. This autocratic riptide arose from a massive backlash against Communism and from conservative elites' wariness of fascism and their preference for authoritarian rule. After summarizing the book's main argument, the chapter explains its scholarly contributions, its research design & sources, and central concepts, namely fascism and reactionary rule. It ends with brief chapter summaries.
The interwar years saw the greatest reversal of political liberalization and democratization in modern history. Why and how did dictatorship proliferate throughout Europe and Latin America in the 1920s and 1930s? Blending perspectives from history, comparative politics, and cognitive psychology, Kurt Weyland argues that the Russian Revolution sparked powerful elite groupings that, fearing communism, aimed to suppress imitation attempts inspired by Lenin's success. Fears of Communism fueled doubts about the defensive capacity of liberal democracy, strengthened the ideological right, and prompted the rise of fascism in many countries. Yet, as fascist movements spread, their extremity and violence also sparked conservative backlash that often blocked their seizure of power. Weyland teases out the differences across countries, tracing how the resulting conflicts led to the imposition of fascist totalitarianism in Italy and Germany and the installation of conservative authoritarianism in Eastern and Southern Europe and Latin America.
Chapter 8 examines the main pathways toward autocratic imposition through a series of country cases, especially in-depth investigations of the tension-filled relationship between conservative establishment sectors and rising fascist movements. In Spain, Brazil, and Portugal, conservative elites commanded clear predominance and used fascist movements as mere auxiliaries for installing elitist authoritarianism. In Austria, Estonia, and Romania, by contrast, fascist movements achieved a striking upsurge. Deeply scared, conservative establishment sectors prevented fascist power seizures through authoritarian self-coups and then repressed the extreme-right upstarts, sometimes brutally. Similarly, authoritarian stalwarts in Hungary obstructed a regime insider’s efforts to push toward full-scale fascism.
This chapter examines how establishment sectors, ranging from the right to the moderate left, responded to the rash efforts of radical left-wingers to replicate Lenin's revolutionary success in Russia in a wide range of countries. Fearful of Communism, status-quo defenders everywhere squashed these precipitous uprisings. For this purpose, they employed excessive violence and resorted to significant "overkill." This reaction was driven by cognitive heuristics, which inspired an overestimation of the extreme-left threat and which activated loss aversion and thus prompted a disproportionately drastic response. Going beyond repression, the reaction to this early riptide of left-wing revolutionary efforts included the emergence of fascism in Italy, which arose in direct struggle against leftist contention; and the imposition of authoritarianism in Hungary, which followed upon a failed "Soviet Republic." The chapter provides substantial analyses of these two cases and explains why different types of autocracy emerged in these two countries.
Chapter 3 examines the immediate impact of the Russian Revolution, which triggered the proliferation of autocracy during the interwar years. With ample primary sources, the chapter documents how Lenin’s success quickly stimulated a wave of radical-left emulation efforts, especially in Central and Eastern Europe. Driven by cognitive shortcuts, rather than fully rational decision-making, these imitation attempts were precipitous and ill-planned; therefore, they uniformly failed. The chapter investigates the experiences of many countries, especially the Baltic States, Finland, Germany, and Hungary.
Chapter 6 explains how fascism – exceptionally – managed to seize power in crisis-ridden Germany. In this fairly modern society, conservative elites had sufficient clout to undermine liberal democracy, but not enough control to impose authoritarianism and block a fascist upsurge. The chapter explains how Hitler took advantage of these weaknesses and built a party that during the Great Depression quickly drew skyrocketing support. In this crisis, conservative efforts to maintain stability through presidential decree powers or through the imposition of an authoritarian regime failed. For apparent lack of alternatives, the NSDAP (National-Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei – National-Socialist German Workers’ Party) eventually gained power, which Hitler immediately used to push toward totalitarianism.
Chapter 5 explains why in the eyes of many status-quo defenders, the quick and decisive defeat of Communists’ early efforts to replicate the Russian Revolution did not reliably guarantee sociopolitical stability. The main reasons were that Communism managed to survive in Russia and that Lenin’s disciples eagerly proselytized, organized, and agitated across the globe. As the world-revolutionary threat kept looming, mainstream sectors remained fearful and searched for stronger protection than liberal democracy seemed to guarantee. In this setting, fascism emerged as an attractive regime model that could reliably protect against Communism. Therefore, fascism held enormous appeal across the globe as well. In fact, Mussolini's takeover of power in Italy stimulated several imitation efforts, which – like the Communist replication attempts examined in Chapter 3 – uniformly failed as well.
Chapter10 summarizes the book’s central findings, which highlight a massive backlash to Communism as well as fascism. Due to this double deterrent effect, revolutionary Communism and counter-revolutionary fascism rarely spread during the interwar years; instead, fear of these two extremes led to the overthrow of liberal democracy by the advocates of conservative authoritarianism. The chapter then emphasizes that cognitive-psychological insights are crucial for understanding the tremendous turmoil and terrible death toll of the interwar years. The subsequent section stresses that the horrors culminating in the 1940s exerted their own deterrent effects, which fostered the revival of political liberty and democratic consolidation in Western Europe. Because democracy has in recent years faced a rightwing-populist challenge, the last section highlights how this threat differs fundamentally from fascism. This study of the past thus helps to calm present fears.